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As we sat around the table in mismatched chairs in the dimly lit kitchen, the warm summer breeze danced in through the window screens, carrying the night gently on its back. The TV in the next room whispered words we didn’t listen to. He shuffled the cards and dealt them, the first face down, hiding, and the second face up. A single light shone down on my forehead and in my small hands I clutched an ace and a jack. I pushed seven pennies to the middle, looking first at my sister, and then at my grandfather. My expression didn’t waver; I held my poker face just like he had taught me. He stared back at me. “Twenty-one,” I said. He smiled. 

During a cold December twelve years later, we sat in a dimly lit room at his nursing home. There was no summer breeze to eliminate the oppressive, suffocating humidity of reality. A single light illuminated the truth. Now, instead of being seated around the table, we were seated around a bed, his bed, and the pennies we wagered became the uncertain breathes of the future; we bet on them, not sure they would be there when we arrived. 

… 

The last time I heard him speak was a surprise. It was August, and words hadn’t left his lips in over a month. He and I stared at each other, equally astounded. What appeared to be a miracle hardly felt like one. We both knew he wasn’t ever getting better. All that remained for us was the deadly decline.

It wasn’t until September that I brought myself to do it. To say goodbye. He had a few months left, but I was already witnessing the painfully slow deterioration of his brain. I had to tell him while he still had a chance of understanding.  

We sat outside the building at a table, the intense sun beating down relentlessly, making me sweat more than I already was. As I retrieved the folded papers I had written chaotically on from my pocket, my hands shook. I wanted to run. He looked at me, and then the papers. I’m not sure if he knew. 

There were noises of late summer all around me, but as I got deeper into the conversation, they began to fade away gradually until all I could hear was the sound of my own voice, cracking under the pressure of holding back tears. And then I could no longer fight them. The tears began to roll slowly down my cheeks. I finally lost my poker face I had tried so hard to keep.

My emotional goodbye was met with blank stares and silence. I felt sick. He didn’t understand. I was too late. 

… 

Morphine dripped slowly into his arm, arms that used to carry me, the skin hanging loose from where his muscle used to be. The TV which had played black and white westerns for the past few months had been shut off. The only sound in the eerily quiet room was the deafening silence. His deafening silence. I loathed the cancer for taking away my favorite conversation partner, for killing the words before they could reach his cracked lips and escape his mouth to meet my eager ears. I loathed myself for not saying goodbye earlier.  But I hadn’t been ready, and I wasn’t now either. I wanted to put my face down, to hide like the cards he used to deal me. Instead, I held my poker face. Just like he had taught me. He stared back at me as always, but he didn’t smile. He couldn’t. His eyes were now empty. A deep blue abyss. 

… 

Three months after his death he came to me in a dream. 

As we stood in my yellow dining room, the gentle notes of a song that would only exist in this dream surrounded us, swaddling us in its warmth. The lyrics sang of dreaming of a wandering man, and I knew he had wandered, as intentionally as one can wander, into my dream. 

I slowly put down each object I was holding so I could hold him instead. This was it. I wanted to feel it. We embraced, holding each other stronger than ever before as we swayed gently to the soft music. I felt his frail, fragile body in my arms, but his soul was strong as he stood there with me and spoke.

He whispered in my ear

“I might die tomorrow.” I know. 

“You and your sister have been so good to me. I love you both so much.”

And before I could tell him anything, how he shaped me as a person, how there was no one else like him, how I will always love him so much, he started to disappear from my arms. He left my slumber as swiftly as he had come, fading away into dust until what I had held onto so tightly was no longer there. For a moment I felt panicked because I didn’t get to tell him everything. But then I realized I didn’t need to. I finally knew that he knew. That he understood how much I loved him. Relief swept through me. 

I was finally able to say goodbye.

Emily is currently a sophomore at Colby and is a Psychology major and Philosophy minor. She is from Massachusetts, but loves living in Maine! She enjoys creating, whether it be arts, crafts, or writing. She is a lover of animals and misses the company of her cats while at school. She loves getting outdoors and seeing everything the world has to offer. Feel free to reach out or say hi!
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